Gboyega Alaka went to town to feel the pulse of the people.
WHO would have imagined that prices of kerosene would one day become a thing of so much worry in Nigeria? Who would have contemplated that a commodity, which went for as low as N50 per liter a couple of years ago would so soon sell for between N200 and N250? (A respondent even said he bought it at N300 in his area in Lagos not too long ago; arguing that what sold for N200 was the 60cl beer bottle measurement.) Now that was the equivalent of a dollar just a few months ago; and in a country where most people live below a dollar per day, it leaves a lot of questions about the people’s chances of survival.
By nature, man is hardly able to eat his food raw, safe for some fruits. It is for this reason that he has always had need for cooking fuel, be it firewood, charcoal, gas or kerosene. In most third world countries, Nigeria inclusive, kerosene has been the most preferred in the present modern day. More than 80% of Nigeria’s population uses kerosene for their cooking; and that is despite recent government campaigns for a switch to alternative fuel. Perhaps the government foresaw an impending crisis, which the people conveniently ignored, partly because prices (of kerosene) have for a long time remained affordable. Even when the prices purportedly went up under past government administrations, government’s subsidies kept it at bay and ensured that it remained within the reach of the common man.
It is however a different story today. First, an unending scam within the sector ensured that subsidies had to be removed. Secondly, the increasing rise in the price of dollar, plus an almost total deregulation of the sector has ensured that the price continues to shoot up. To make matters worse, prices of food have also risen astronomically, making cooking, something very basic for man’s survival, extremely difficult.
Litany of complaints
When The Nation went out to various parts of Lagos recently to feel the pulse of the people, especially how they have been coping, the responses were not unsurprisingly a litany of lamentations. What turned-out a bit of surprise however was the magnitude, level of disillusionment and a sense of regret at the present administration.
Mercy, Cynthia and Favour are petty traders at Volkswagen Bus-stop along Badagry Expressway. Mercy sells cigarettes and candies, while Cynthia and Favour operate a makeshift food canteen by the roadside. They sat together this particular afternoon, so they inevitably had to be interviewed together. Mercy said the situation is really tough and that she has had to resort to using charcoal and nylon to make fire to prepare her meals.
“My brother,” Mercy began, “a litre of kerosene is now N230 in my neighbourhood, so I have resorted to using charcoal and nylon. You know that even with charcoal, I still would need a little kerosene to light the fire; so I now use dry nylon in place of kerosene. I set fire to the nylon and place it on the charcoal until it catches fire. That is how we have been managing to cook and put food on the table for our children.”
Mercy said she no longer uses kerosene as it is, since the price of the quantity to cook a meal is almost equal to the cost of the food stuff itself. Imagine me cooking one derica of rice at N250 with a litre of kerosene at N250. That does not make sense to me at all.”
When asked if the price of charcoal has not gone up due to the pressure of demand for it, Mercy said “Charcoal is still far better. With N50 charcoal, you can cook a meal. You’ll even have left-over that you can use for your next meal. But not so with kerosene. A litre of kerosene can barely cook a meal. Maybe a pot of soup and to boil water to make garri. And if you venture to use it to cook beans, you can be sure that you will not have anything left in your stove.”
Cynthia on her part said “the worst part is that the kerosene even dries up quickly. I think it has to do with the quality, but I can tell you that the kerosene we use now is different from what we used to use in those days.”
Favour chipped in that the situation has affected the cost of food that they sell. She said the young men who patronise them at the bus park now complain perennially of the quantity they dish out for them, but she said it is not their fault. “If we don’t pass the cost to the customers, then we won’t be able to go to the market the next day.”
On whether they have not tried gas as an alternative, Mercy said “I use gas from time to time, but I stopped when its price also went up. I use the medium size cylinder, but as we speak, the price has gone up to N5,000, so for now, I am sticking with my charcoal and nylon.
Not far from the trio is a group of men under a large umbrella, where Fair Onyinyechi operates another makeshift canteen. With this group, it was as if they had been waiting for someone to unburden their hearts to, and they were all the more happy when they discovered their guest was a newspaper reporter. Quickly, they gathered and literally struggled to outwit each other in laying their complaints.
A young man, who gave his name as Abdul Rafiu Akorede, said “ I will not lie to you, things have gone really crazy. It is as if the world is coming to an end. Is it that they have deliberately dropped the quality of the kerosene? I ask this question because the rate at which it dries up raises suspicion. I wasn’t born yesterday, and I remember that when I was young and the stuff was cheap, it usually lasted longer. You could use a litre to cook two to three times; but that doesn’t happen again. Why should they reduce the quality now that they have increased the price? Please help us tell the government that we the masses are suffering. If they do not do anything about our problems, especially this kerosene and foodstuff issue, we will soon start rioting on the streets.”
At this point, another gentleman, Otunba chipped in: “How much does this girl sell a plate of eba now? Before, a plate of semo (semovita) was N150, now, it is N200, and yet the quantity has been reduced. If we complain to Onyinyechi, the next thing we hear is “I beg o things don cost o” And we know it too.”
Even Onyinyechi who had been silent all the while jumped in at this point. “A derica (measurement tin) of rice is now N300; add that to an expensive kerosene that now sells for N220 and you will understand that it is not my fault.”
Otunba added that many people now no longer cook for their children at home, owing to the exorbitant prices of kerosene. “Some people have resorted to only giving their children money: N50, N70, N100 to buy food at the various mamaputs, rather than cook at home; and they don’t bother asking if the food they bought satisfies their hunger or not.”
He therefore said government should bring down the price of the fuel, even if it is for the sake of the masses, since “they (the elite) use gas.”
Akorede said even children now complain that food sellers don’t want to sell food of N50 again. Where they do, you would know that it is just to fulfill all righteousness. N50 beans is not even enough to satisfy a chick.”
A woman who wouldn’t give her name said, “ Frankly, this change has brought us more woes than we bargained for. In fact, I regret going out to vote that day; we should just have left Jonathan to continue in government; at least things weren’t as bad as this then. the masses are suffering; the rich are enjoying because they can afford gas.”
Otunba again chipped in: “What my wife uses now is Abacha stove, sawdust (a makeshift sawdust-powered stove that became popular when fuel scarcity hit the country briefly in the late 1990s). The children go to sawmill and gather sawdust, which we now stuff in a stove carcass and ignite with fire.”
He added that “For now, sawdust is free, because we’re helping them to clear their waste; although I hear that some people are already charging little money for it.”
By now, another man had joined the group. He introduced himself as Chika and said at the moment, even N400 is not enough for him to eat at the local mamaput food sellers again. The situation is so tough. Do you know that the staple lunch in my home now is garri and groundnut? Gone are the days when children eat quality meals for lunch.”
At a nearby auto spare-parts row, Agada, who sells oils and other auto accessories said “With kerosene at N220 per litre, I don’t cook anymore. There is no money to buy expensive kerosene to cook expensive food; so I just buy food from any of the numerous mamaputs around – you can see that they’re all over the place. Although the price of kerosene has affected the quality and quantity of their food, I still find it more convenient as a bachelor.”
As a confirmation, Agada showed this reporter the leftover bread he ate for breakfast. He implored the government, as a panacea, to subsidise the price of kerosene, so that it can become affordable again. People are suffering; even firewood is getting more expensive now.”
His friend, Chukwuma said, the situation is also breeding little criminals. “Nowadays, you see little children engaging in petty stealing. Some of them, who have morals engage in cheap labour to make quick money, and begging. This I believe is because parents no longer bother if children are okay with their meals. They just give them whatever money they can afford for food, not minding if the money is enough. And don’t forget that hunger will not go away simply because you ignored it. The result is that we now have children who struggle to fend for themselves.”
Opeyemi Waheed, a soft drink seller, summed it up, when she said she now spends as much as N1500 every morning before setting out for her place of business. She said cooking with kerosene at N220 a litre has become a hefty addition to the cost of feeding at home. “In the past, we used to make do with N500 for breakfast; but with the prices of food – whether rice, beans, yam or even bread; along with kerosene, things are now nearly unbearable. And what exactly is the size of my business?”
At a nearby Ibukun Olu Abdul Azeez Filling Station, this reporter sought to confirm the price of the commodity. A couple of women were seen on queue buying the product. The attendant revealed that a litre currently sells for N200. He said they sold at N150 not long ago and that the price fluctuates according to price of supply. He also said he does not know anyone who sells at a lesser price in the area.
Speaking to The Nation, one of the customers on queue said she once bought at the station at N220 not too long ago. And contrary to the attendant’s claim, she said she has not bought the commodity at N150 per litre there this year.
In the Sango/Toll-Gate axis of Lagos/Ogun border, the story is the same. Modinat Oguntimeyin, a housewife, lamented the hike in the price of the cooking fuel. She said, “The kerosene hike is really affecting us. At the moment, it is sold at N200 per litre, and by the time you cook twice, it is finished. We don’t even know what they now mix with it that makes it evaporate so quickly.”
Romoke Olusola, a petty trader said the price of the liquid is becoming unbearable, even though it is indispensable to many families. She implored the present administration to look into the issue if indeed they want the change mantra to have any meaning to the people.
She said “Some people now stay a whole day without cooking because of the price of kerosene. Many have diverted to firewood and charcoal…. If you look at the kerosene we’re buying these days, you’d see that it contains a mixture that changes its original colour to orange-like colour. you would also notice that after one round of cooking, what is left may not be enough for any significant cooking.
Funmilayo Ajibade, a street hawker could however not hide her anger against the government. He chided the government for not doing enough to protect the interest of the common man in the kerosene matter. “We have children at home to cater for and since the price of everything including kerosene has gone up, I have no option but to become a hawker overnight.
“Currently, we buy at N200 and before you know it, a litre is gone. How does the government want us to survive in this harsh condition?” She queried.
In his contribution, a sculptor and father of three described the situation as unfortunate. He blasted the government for “turning deaf ears to the groaning of the common man” saying that “our leaders seem not to be ready to ameliorate the hardship that stares the common man in the face.”
He added that the common man now cooks only once a day or not at all.
Outside Lagos, the situation is the same or even worse. Samson Adekunle, who schools in Kwara State said the product sold at between N215 and N230 per litre before he came on holidays to Lagos. For this reason, he said, even as students, they have resorted to cooking with charcoal. “You won’t believe it, but we cook with charcoal in our hostels now. a good number of us have bought coal-pots and we buy charcoal between N50 and N100. And the good thing is that it lasts much longer than the kerosene you buy at over N200.
“Some students who live off campus even use firewood. They forage nearby bushes for woods and use them to prepare their meals. In the alternative, many students simply eat-out.”
The gas option
In June 2013, Lagos State government under Governor Babatunde Fashola launched the Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) cylinder initiative for clean and green environment. It was a campaign aimed at taking the people away from the old-fashioned way of cooking with charcoal and firewood, which the government described as ‘harmful.’ it also sought to disabuse the people from their age-long belief that cooking gas is only for the rich and upper-class. While the campaign won a good number of people over, the larger population still ignored, despite the lower cost and the affordable sized cylinder.
However, the current high price of kerosene is forcing so many to make a switch, and quickly too. many housewives have spoken of how they practically coerced their husbands to fund the switch.
Blessing Baraka, a housewife in Ikotun area of Lagos, is basking in her new found possession. Though she had never used gas in cooking before, she confessed to this reporter that she is relishing the new experience. She said she literally arm-twisted her husband into letting them switch to cooking gas, since kerosene was becoming unaffordable and electricity, which she normally used had become scarce due to the drop in supply. She said the newly introduced pre-paid metre being introduced in her area made matters worse, because it suddenly became extremely expensive to cook with electricity. So now, she said she does not have to buy kerosene at high prices nearly every day anymore, saying it had even become embarrassing. But more importantly, she is enjoying the convenience and the fact that her cooking utensils no longer get black and messy.
About the risk of inflammability, she said she is being careful enough, and that she has consistently warned her children of the danger of fiddling with it.
She is however not too happy with the fact that the price of gas is also going up. “When we took the decision to switch to it, a cylinder was around N3,500; but as we speak, the price is between N4,000 and N4,500. I even hear that even the price of charcoal is gradually rising. I think the government should do something to stem the situation, else the common man may not be able to eat again.
Mrs Balogun, a petty trader in Ile-Iwe area of Ikotun also said she had to switch to gas, when electricity, which she had been used to became too epileptic. “When electricity initially became too epileptic, I switched to kerosene, but that became too expensive too and I had to embrace the gas option.”
She said though that too is not so cheap, especially if you’re just starting out, but ultimately, it is a lot better, faster, neater and more convenient. “To install the cylinder and the cooker, I spent N11,000 on the cylinder, hose and regulator N2,000 and gas N4,200. That totalled about N17,000. add that to the price of the cooker itself, and you will understand why it is taking many people too long to switch.”
She said subsequently, it hasn’t been too difficult and a cylinder lasts her about two months, which she said is cheap, compared to kerosene of N250 per day.
Hassan Adam, who lives in Apapa said using kerosene to cook is a wasteful venture that any wise person should have done away with a long time ago. He wondered why anyone would be spending almost ten thousand naira on kerosene a month, when a cylinder of gas that sold around N2,500 before the recent pipeline vandalism, could last them up to two months and beyond.
He said he switched to cooking gas about three months ago, when the Lagos State government embarked on a massive campaign for a switch three years ago.
Adam also said most of the gas plants now run home-delivery service, which takes away the inconvenience of carrying the cylinder over long distance.
Charcoal prices on the rise too
According to Sango-based Romoke Olusola, many have indeed switched to cooking with charcoal, even if it is for a while, until kerosene prices come down. She however regretted the fact that even the price of that is gradually climbing to the ceiling. “Many have switched to charcoal and firewood, but even the price of that is painfully on the rise. A bag of charcoal, which formally sold at N800 now sells at N1,800. Now that is over a hundred percent increase, and automatically a hundred percent increase in the burden of the poor masses.”